As we had done so many times before, Greg and I flew through the bracing air of our winding suburban roads, which still, in between the morning commute and mommy hours, resembled the countryside it had once been. We had been riding together for years, since we both bought identical bikes from the same store, our relationship over the years an odd one of rivalry and comradeship, each one influencing the purchases of the other. I bought the skis that he had. He bought the computer that I had. But we remained adamantly different in our own ways. I never became a Saab guy, and he distained Subarus and the other economy cars I chose.
Middle age had come to us quietly. We still acted like kids playing hooky half the time, sneaking out of work on a fine day to ride the endless combination of loops that can be strung together from the back roads of New England that link every town to every other. Greg was more governed by the weather than I. In winter, if a big snow was coming, he would ditch his wife and child and head up North, trying to catch the big white like a surfer catching a wave. On nice days in autumn, when the sky was so blue it made you want to cry, he would phone up with that casual voice of his that almost hid the urgency beneath and say, “What are you up to?” before proposing a ride. “I’ve got my bike in the car and can be out there in a half hour,” he’d say. Most of the time, I’d go for it, the devil in me refusing to give up just yet on my lost youth. Work could wait. The grim reaper would be here soon enough.
And so, on this particular day, winging our way through the quiet of the meandering roads with just enough competitiveness to wind us, we panted up hill after hill, roaring down the far side. Throughout our lives, we had maintained an unusual relationship for two guys, essentially sports buddies, but with a kind of unspoken gentleness that took into account the possibility that circumstances could change in substantial and unexpected ways. Neither of us took commercial success seriously. Of course, we had both became more interested in money as we realized that we might not live forever and our families loomed larger in the pantheon of our pagan gods. But he had been a foreman on a home insulation crew when I was an international executive, and I had been a struggling journalist when he became a mortgage banker, and so neither of us put much store by the normal accoutrements of success nor stood on ceremony for the other. We recognized right from the start the long term futility of the human enterprise and joked about it even as we tapped along the walls hoping to find a graceful way out.
We were approaching a level crossing where the commuter rail traversed an old country road. Not far from this spot, I had pulled into a side road some years before on a strange instinct, only to confront a five-point buck where a stream entered a culvert at a bend in the road. The buck and I stared at each other for a minute, unmoving, and then I began to speak to him, asking him in a quiet voice what he was doing there and remarking that he had the finest rack of any I’d seen in the area and wondering aloud where he was off to. But he wouldn’t budge. So, I looked down deliberately to give him some space, and when I looked up, he was gone.
As Greg and I were nearing the rails, we heard the bell begin its insistent clanging and saw the black and white painted wooden barriers start to fall. The two arms, set one in front of the other by a few feet, swung down from opposite sides of the road, blocking our passage. We waited quietly. In another minute, the train whooshed by, the mass of it shattering the peace, the shock of the accompanying airwave buffeting us, even from 20 feet away.
We waited for the barriers to rise, and when they didn’t, Greg pushed off, rolling in a snaking pattern around the tips of the barriers and across the tracks. There were no cars idling on either side of the tracks, an unusual circumstance in our increasingly crowded suburb. But then, at that time of day, sometimes, in between the various rushes, no one was about. And I rolled after, this time the follower.
Of course, we should have realized that the barriers hadn’t risen for a reason. There are those times when, given all the possible combinations, two trains will pass each other exactly at a level crossing and those occasions when they will slip around one another just beyond the intersection, not a minute apart. At such moments, rather than raising and lowering the barriers twice, the wise programmers who decide these things will leave them down for the duration, figuring, and rightly so, that the good burghers will stay in their cars, keep their pants on, and wait for the second train.
But Greg has never been like that. He’s the one who always slips into the breakdown lane in his Saab to jump to the head of the line of waiting cars at a red-light-about-to-turn-green and guns his engine through the intersection just as it does so as to take his rightful place at the head of traffic with nothing but the open road in front of him. Years ago, when I felt I couldn’t compete with the forces life was bringing to bear down upon me, I left everything behind to take a bike to Europe and live as a vagabond for what turned out to be several years. I was unable to slip around all those other cars and find, if only temporarily, my strip of empty tarmac across which I could race, building my thrill and jump-starting my adrenalin. I had to go into exile to find my peace of mind, with no competitors to disturb my fragile soul, and ride, alone and anonymous through miles of hushed landscape in order to hear my heart.
I followed Greg around the barrier and over the tracks, not yet conscious of what was to pass, but still vaguely disturbed by the oddity of the non-rising arms, perhaps perceiving, below the level of consciousness, the rumbling of the ground, transmitting through the rails from not very far away.
Not 10 seconds after I passed safely across, the second train barreled past, shaking everything as before, but this time far more ominously, more shatteringly. My nerves jangled. The closeness of the call made me dizzy. Why had we felt it necessary to jump the gun? What possible gain was there? The few seconds gained measured against the remaining lifetime lost seemed way out of perspective. But with heightened perception, seconds become years, and in some sense we had been no closer to danger than anyone who is reasonably alert on any day.
I looked at Greg and he looked at me. "A little excitement," he said. I shrugged my shoulders. We pushed off, our nerve endings spritzed with adrenalin as we flew through the sweet air, having survived to ride yet another day.